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The Sources of Gnosticism

There seem to have been a number of sources that contributed to the development of Gnosticism in its syncretic Hellenistic setting [Turner, pp.56-59.] For example:

  1. Hellenistic-Jewish speculation regarding the figure of Sophia (in Hebrew, Hokmah) or divine Wisdom, a personified female creator deity midrashic (rabbinic) interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis (specifically, Gen 2-6)
  2. a particular form of baptismal ritual.  Baptism was a common practice at this time (the biblical John the Baptist being by no means unique), but the Sethians believed their baptisimal water to be of a celestial nature, a Living Water identical with the spiritual Light, and enabling the ascent of the soul; and so were critical of the ordinary water baptism
  3. the developing Christ-doctrine (Christology) of the early church, especially the identification of Christ with the pre-existent Logos (the creative power or emanation of God)
  4. Neopythagorean and Middle Platonic metaphysics, such as the emanation of divine beings from a single transcendent Absolute, and the understanding of the cosmos as the reflection of the spiritual world.
  5. and Babylonian and Chaldean Astrology; the identification of the planets with deities, and the postulation of a number of a celestial heaven pertaining to each; all of which determines human destiny and induces a sort of fatalism.

The idea of Matter (hyle) as an independent or autonomous principle - contra Plotinus who viewed it simply as the absence of spiritual Being - and the source of evil, is derived from both Greek and oriental sources.  On the Greek side we have the Pythagorean tradition with its pairs of opposites (light and dark, good and evil, spirit and matter, etc) and certain passages of Plato (perhaps taken out of context), although the idea finds strongest development in the teachings of the Neopythagorean Numenius [E.R. Dodds, external link Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, p.14].  On the oriental side we have the Zoroastrian dualists.  In fact, the early Gnostic Basides refers to this conception of Matter as the wisdom of the barbarians, i.e. the Persian.

In addition, as Daniel McBride (author of The Egyptian Foundations of Gnostic Thought, University of Toronto, 1994) has pointed out to me in an email, the strong emanationist (and, I would also add, mytholopoetic) elements that constitute the underlying architectonic of Gnostic thought can clearly be derived from ancient Egyptian thought, specifically Memphite and Heliopolitan theologies.

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 June 1998, last modified 6 June 2004